The Western Lit Blues

I’m-a-gettin’ tired of living up to my fictional counterpart


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Maybe I'm being naive, but I believe that books can have a lot of power. They show us how to live, or how we could live. They make us less lonely, they connect us to the world, and they illustrate different ways of being human. Art is what makes us more real. Art helps us to perceive and possess our lives.

So we writers damn well better get it right. And there are times when we've fallen down on the job, constricted by cultural mores, paradigms, and trends in publishing and readership, especially out here in the West. Sometimes our characters are valid, but they're not complete.

In most of our past literary history, the West has been portrayed one way: Men were the focus; they were quiet and stoic, and their lives and dreams were all smashed up and required the love of a woman to restore them. But then our literature evolved. We quit talking about corrals and gunsmoke and instead found other compelling stories -- we started hearing the voices of minorities and women, for instance, as well as the interior lives of more complex men.

But I wonder if we've just backed ourselves up into another corral, so to speak. Perhaps the myth has not gone away, it's just changed. Have our books romanticized us yet again? Are we all to be tough and strong outdoorsy types, fishing, camping and kayaking?

There are plenty of people in the West who have never fixed a fence and never slept under the stars. And what about those who live in apartment buildings and mansions, rather than cabins? What about a single Chicana mother on the streets of Denver, or a lonely transplant from L.A. in a new subdivision? Besides the ranchers and campers who live all around me, there are also painters and military personnel and homeless teens;  there are people suffering from anxiety, schizophrenia and bipolar disorders. There are meth addicts, illegal immigrants, rich people who live up on the hill.

Our literary canon will be complete when more of their stories -- and the vast underlying psychology of their lives -- are included in it. The oil drillers of Alexandra Fuller's nonfiction, the odd lovers in Rick Bass' novels, the Spanish-infused language and Chicano influence in Aaron Abeyta's poetry. These artists help us see the real West with renewed clarity and honesty. They help us see ourselves.

So maybe I'm just tired of being as tough as Western fiction tells me I should be. And maybe I'm tired of having publishers want my characters to be that way. All I'm wishing for, I guess, is the full spectrum -- even as we admit to the ways in which the West defines us. When I pick up a book set out here, I want to read about world politics, poverty, wealth, unromanticized sex, sexual orientation, class issues, climate change. But more than anything, I want to read about how irritating it is to believe we're all supposed to be happy about gutting fish. Fish are slippery, and they stink.

There, I said it again.

This essay is adapted from one appearing in the upcoming book The Manner of the Country: Living and Writing the American West, edited by Russell Rowland and Page Stegner.

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